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Visualisation in the Premier League

I recently caught up again with Shaun Goater a Manchester City club legend, he played at City between 1998 and 2003 where he played 184 appearances and scored 84 times. As sport psychologist with Manchester City between the periods of 1998 – 2003 I worked closely with Shaun using visualisation.

The fans were quite skeptical as to Goater's ability, he did however win them over. As goals were scored, supporters were gradually won over, creating a song in his honour: 'Feed the Goat and he will score'.

I recognise the power of visualisation, however Shaun’s words when we met recently resonated powerfully: “I remember after a game being presented with the man of the match award and honestly can say I was still out there playing I was so absorbed in the performance”.

Shaun also shared that when Willie Donachie, Head Coach at the time, explained I was available to help the players (and he mentioned that I was a City fan). Initially, as Shaun was going through a tough time with performances he thought; “well I am not going to see him.”

We did however strike up a strong relationship as Shaun eventually approached me with an 'I’ve got nothing to lose' attitude and was keen to explore ways to improve his performance.

The approach I used was the PETTLEP process. This follows a research-based model of imagery to help guide practitioners’ use of imagery, Holmes and Collins (2001) devised the PETTLEP model. This model is based on findings from sport psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and aims to provide practitioners with a set of practical guidelines to aid the imagery development. 

PETTLEP uses these steps to go through with your athlete.

Physical - is arguably the most important. It is seen as crucially important, with maximum benefits and impact.  Imagery should be as ‘physical’ an experience as possible. One obvious way of achieving this is to load the imagery instructions with the performer’s physiological responses. Other ways of making the imagery more physical include wearing the same clothes as during performance, and holding/feeling any equipment or protective equipment (e.g. tennis racquet, golf club, strapping tape).
Environment - it is important to consider the place where the imagery is performed.  PETTLEP this should be performed in a similar environment to the performance as possible. Research suggests that it’s most effective in the actual competitive environment. This was obviously difficult in Shaun’s case being a professional footballer. The use of video and audio may be useful in aiding mental simulation and recall of the venue. We used a video of Shaun’s successes, goals, passes etc. This visual stimulation was overlaid with a piece of music that Shaun identified as being his favorite at the time, high connection.
Task - the task. The content of the imagery was appropriate to the skill level and the personal preferences of Shaun, it needs to resonate with the athlete. As a striker his attentional focus was dependent on the phases of play. Therefore the video contained specific performance examples of his role in the team: goals, headers and passes.
Timing - refers to the speed at which imagery is completed/recalled. The video was played in real time allowing Shaun to see himself achieving his performance goals. As the timing is crucial when performing sports skills, Shaun performed his imagery in ‘real time’.
Learning - we recognised that as his performances improved the need to respond and further stimulate his learning was crucial.  New videos and imagery scripts were developed recognising that regular updating of the stimulus is essential.  Shaun found this very successful in enhancing his performance.
Emotion - whilst working with Shaun, his relationship with the fans highlighted the emotional element in his game.  We needed to ensure that the imagery has emotional attachment as well if it was to be realistic and effective.  Research suggests that PETTLEP interventions are effective than imagery sessions that are preceded by instructions to relax. The inclusion of emotional thoughts and feelings in the imagery instructions makes the imagery much more vivid and evocative like the real-life scenario.  This stimulates the imagery to be more vivid and ‘in the moment’.
Perspective – I recognised Shaun’s preference to watch himself in action, which helped increase his connectivity with the imagery script and video. It may well be beneficial to adopt an internal visual perspective in many cases, although some athletes find internal imagery difficult or just prefer external imagery. In this situation I recognised Shaun’s preference for an external image and we continued to use video.

Knowing your athlete is crucial to engage and deliver an effective imagery process, the impact can be long term, just ask Shaun!

Shaun is now planning to work with young players in academies who are developing themselves and will introduce visualisation to them as a way to further improve their performance.

Paul Connolly, Coaching Advisor, Talent and Performance (Sports Coach UK)